Maslow's hierarchy of needs

If an employee had to choose between a good office chair and a birthday party at work, they would probably choose the office chair because they have to sit and work on it five days a week. The latter is more likely to provide comfort, ergonomic support and satisfaction than a party. There are many explanations for this choice, and one explanation can be found in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which places physiological needs above those of love and belonging.
A vast, barren landscape with hills in the background and a striking, pointed wooden structure in the foreground under a cloudy sky.


Background to Maslow's hierarchy of needs

A theoretical model such as Maslow's hierarchy of needs attempts to simplify reality in order to have a way of explaining people's behaviour and understanding their motivation and personality development. The model is one of the humanistic theories that assume that people are naturally optimistic and have the ability and willingness to develop their personality throughout their lives. Impairments in personality development can be compensated by one's own efforts to achieve autonomy, a sense of purpose and self-actualisation. We behave appropriately in a situation because we want to achieve goals, the nature and strength of which are determined by needs. According to the American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) who played a major role in humanistic psychology, two types of general needs can be distinguished: deficiency needs and growth needs. Deficiency needs are for self-preservation and would lead to a lack of needs if not adequately met. Growth needs serve self-actualisation, i.e. the need to develop and use one's own potential.

The five levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Individual needs, consisting of physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs and self-actualisation needs, build on each other. A higher level requires the satisfaction of each lower need.
Deficiency needs include
  • physiological needs: These are all basic needs such as eating and sleeping, i.e. needs at the physical level.
  • safety needs: These are mainly the desire for security and stability, i.e. health and employment.
  • love and belonging needs: This is the desire to belong to a group, a team or a family, i.e. a social structure.
  • esteem needs: This is about how you are perceived by others. There is a need for recognition, power and status.
In the growth need there is only self-actualisation, which is the ideal state. This is achieved when a person is satisfied with themselves and their life. It is the need to live up to one's potential and abilities. When this state is reached, a person does not come to a standstill, but sets new goals. However, there is no need to work on self-actualisation if someone is still hungry, which again underlines the hierarchy of the model. There are 15 indicators of self-actualisation. To identify these indicators, Maslow observed people who considered themselves to be self-actualised. These indicators include self-acceptance, sense of community, basic democratic attitudes, sense of humour and overcoming cultural narrowness. Once these were achieved, one was considered to be self-actualised.
Needs are behaviourally effective and vary in strength between individuals, which can explain behavioural differences, personality constructs and different motivations. Which behaviour or need is realised first depends on the position of the motive in the hierarchy and the strength of the motive.

Extensions of Maslow's hierarchy of needs and criticism

Maslow extended the model, although the original version is the one most commonly used. The highest level is now transcendence, a dimension that goes beyond the individual self and lies outside the observable system. We can be motivated by needs that transcend the personal self. This leads from the humanistic path to transpersonal psychology, which deals with altered states of consciousness. 
One level above esteem needs are cognitive and aesthetic needs. Cognitive needs mean that someone is motivated by the expansion of knowledge and understanding. They want to understand how the world works and at the same time open themselves up to self-actualisation. Aesthetic needs involve an appreciation of the pleasurable things in life and an attempt to find a balance between oneself and the environment.
Although the motivational theory sounds very plausible, there are some criticisms of Maslow's theory.
Deficiency needs are not satisfied around the clock, but need to be worked on again and again. This means that higher needs would have to be put on hold in order to satisfy lower needs, which is not the reality. Higher needs can be satisfied without satisfying lower needs. The satisfaction of higher needs does not always require the satisfaction of lower needs. This means that the hierarchy is not rigid and that the domains are not to be seen as separate, but as fluid and sometimes parallel.
Nor is the hierarchy always comprehensible, especially when we consider different cultures. For some, the good of the group and the social fabric is more important than the need for self-realisation. Sometimes people take the path away from the need for security and towards self-realisation by choosing an insecure job. In this way, you may not have the feeling of a permanent job, but at least you have the chance to develop personally and to do what makes you happy. This means that the order of the hierarchy is simply different for some, and not, as with Maslow, that the lower needs must be satisfied first in order to fulfil oneself.

The importance in the modern world

The hierarchy of needs can be applied to the needs of project workers. Even in the workplace, there are basic needs that should always be met, as the example at the beginning of this article shows.
Physiological needs

This is where the hierarchy of physiological needs comes in. These include basic needs, such as a work and break room, or the right working environment, such as a good chair and a suitable desk. These needs must be met in order to satisfy the basic needs of the employee. These needs are self-explanatory, but if they are not met, it will also have a strong impact on the employee's motivation.
Safety needs

In addition, a project team member has a strong interest in safety, e.g. in the form of stability. This includes a permanent employment contract or the reliability of colleagues and superiors. A good example is the end of a project. You don't know what will happen next, but you are still responsible for the ongoing project, even though you have less and less to do. What if the project fails? Do you want to be associated with it? It is therefore important to give people an incentive to stay in the project until the end. This could be, for example, a promise that they will be taken on for the next project. This will give them the confidence and motivation to complete the project.
Love and belongingness needs

But there is also a need for love and belonging, because getting along with team colleagues, working together sensibly and working together on a project is important for working well. That's why team-building measures are also used when the team is having problems. Small gestures, such as a birthday or Christmas party, also ensure that love and belongingness needs are met.
 Esteem needs

These are more difficult to measure. How important are you in a group, how much are you valued by others and do you receive recognition? This need is very complex and many factors come into play. But one way to satisfy this need is through regular feedback sessions. This can be constructive criticism as well as positive feedback. In this way, motivation can be maintained. However, the team member must also try to draw motivation from within, because you cannot live on the positive encouragement of others.

The final and highest level is self-actualisation. You want your own strengths to be taken into account when tasks are assigned. This can also increase motivation. Of course, you cannot always take on tasks that are particularly motivating, because there will always be tasks that simply have to be done. But if the project manager wants to keep his team members, he should be aware of this. After all, this is how individual members can be motivated to continue working on the project.


Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a good construct for explaining people's behaviour and motivation. Although many of the ideas do not fully reflect today's knowledge, the hierarchy can still be used to explain why people act or behave the way they do. In the world of project management, Maslow's hierarchy can also be used to meet people's needs and keep them in the organisation longer, so it is good to be aware of it as a project manager.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs - the IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Maslow's hierarchy of needs

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For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.